Much is made of assessing the quality of a suit – its fineness of wool, cut and construction. But it is far easier to tell the quality of a shirt, largely because all its stitching and manufacture is open for all to see. You could also argue that, given you can buy a shirt for £4 in Primark, the price differential in shirts is greater than that in suits. After all, some designer shirts cost over £300 – 75-times the Primark option. It is therefore worth knowing why some cost so much more than others.
So here are some tips on how to assess the quality of a dress shirt. They are drawn from my own experience, a few conversations with the best sales assistants and a liberal scattering of Alan Flusser books.
The reason a shirt is so easy to assess is its stitching. As all of it is on display, it is both simpler to inspect and more important to the overall look of the garment. It is the only texture and, therefore, the place where clumsy, cheap or expeditious work becomes obvious.
Look at the side seam of the shirt, that which connects the front panel to the back. Here is the longest line of exposed stitching. The first thing to note is whether there are two lines here or one. Single-needle stitching involves sewing in one direction and then doubling back over the same line. It produces just the one line but takes twice as long as double-needle stitching, where the sewing machine is fitted with two needles, both sewing in parallel, simultaneously.
Neither is necessarily stronger than the other, but single-needle stitching is sleeker. Flusser recalls seeing men in their shirt sleeves on his first trip to Italy, and admiring the feint lines of their side seams, which seemed to disappear away into nothing. Italian men have always been obsessive about the cut and line of their shirts, but the same single-needle stitching is found in many upscale shirts in the US and UK. It is one definite sign that more time has been committed to the shirt.
This is, however, all it shows. The Ralph Lauren Purple Label shirts I own have single-needle stitching. But then so does a cheap shirt I had made in a substandard Hong Kong tailor. I suspect that the latter simply did not have machines that could double-stitch. The seams certainly fared badly over time, becoming puckered or loose.
But single-needle stitching is still a good sign of quality in modern retail shirts. This is because the management at Zara, Gap, or Armani will have analysed everything that goes into making a shirt and decided which to spend money on. These signs that time, and therefore money, has been invested reveal the brand’s priorities.
Most signs of quality in a shirt are similar. More of them next time.